Apocalyptexts 02: Makers by Cory Doctorow and Freedom (TM) by Daniel Suarez

(This, like all my posts, will contain spoilers of the entire work(s), so deal.)

Though neither of these new novels by Cory Doctorow and Daniel Suarez (aka Leinad Zeraus) are overtly apocalyptic,[1] their mutual involvement in and speculation of both the demise of capital-as-we-know-it and the virtual disappearance of middle-class life in the U.S. easily suggests what has already become a genre in-and-of-itself in the past couple years: apocalypse as economic disaster.  This, of course, is nothing new.

As we perhaps all well recall, Walter Benjamin in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” clearly and critically considered dialectical (or historical) materialism in terms of a messianic impulse,[2] and it is difficult to read The Communist Manifesto as not tarrying w/ messianism or apocalypticism.  But it is curious that it has taken the complete digitization of capital, capital divorced from “human nature,”[3] pushed to its ultimate logic by the absolutely hyperreal speed of the postmodern market for the contemporary instantiation of this teleological inevitability—or at least the imaginative speculation of it. . . (i.e. money circulates so quickly and freely, w/ such algorithmic “precision” and “logic” that it is only a convenient and soothing fiction that we are able to “blame” CEOs of companies like Goldman Sachs for economic disaster).[4] If we are comfortable w/ calling economic disaster messianic or at least teleological, we can only have recourse to some “ghost in the machine” explanation (or better yet, a dwarf inside Deep Blue[5]).  And yet, central to both Makers (one can read it online) and FreedomTM is the projected inevitability of the breakdown of capital—its parasitic logic, sped up w/ a globalized, digital, networked economy, is eschatological (or at least disastrous).  And significantly, as both of these authors are so involved in various other e-endeavors,[6] esp. Suarez’s own involvement in the weirdness of late-capital, we should note the temporal nearness of these fictions.  The worlds and economies they imagine are clearly speculative (and perhaps “science fictional”), but they resemble our own world w/ only a few minor extensions of the present projected into the future.  As everyone is telling us everywhere, economic disaster, the apocalyptic threat of it, Greenspan’s “once in a century tsunami” (see my addendum to the post on 2012), has happened, is happening, and will happen (unless we do something to stop it, which “we” aren’t).  Lo and behold: economic disaster is the apocalypse, the only one that actually makes any “sense,” the finally achieved end of whatever.  This should not surprise us.

But, as said above, neither of these novels could really be called apocalyptic at all.  Makers presents a world in which the US economy is pretty much destroyed, w/ shanty-towns springing up everywhere,[7] massive job loss, a New Deal type economic revolution called “New Work” that dramatically fails. . . but ultimately, capital, in the form of Disney Imagineering[8] (mostly) keeps on a’rollin’, and the novel ends pretty much in the no-space of narrative “giving-up-ness,” the utopian projects having all failed, capital having not collapsed, and its protagonists getting old and imminently dying (from side-effects from the “fatkins” treatment[9]).  FreedomTM, on similar terms, imagines a “Cybergeddon”: a coup staged by the economic elite-of-the-elite to wipe out virtually all global financial assets but their own, but of course this fails, thwarted by the weak-AI or “Daemon” presented in the first novel of this series, Daemon.[10] This is done in a world where gasoline has risen to $17.87 a gallon, unemployment is at 32.3% in the US, the US dollar is virtually worthless, and gold is at $4,189/oz.[11] And of course the novel ends on a mildly-messianic, hero-having-overcome-obstacles-and-reached-the-end-of-his-quest-narrative, w/ a twist that might set up a third book in the series (which I, for one, would like to see).

So of course the question is: why are either of these novels—even depicting significant, nigh apocalyptic economic “downturns” as they do—apocalyptic?  Well, in quite simple terms, the manner in which both Doctorow and Suarez structure both economic disaster as well as the utopian possibilities both novels present is archival.  Yes, I said it, no surprise (of course), but they are, and they are to a fairly ridiculous degree.[12]

I’ll begin w/ Makers (mostly b/c I read it first).  Though this isn’t a sequel to Doctorow’s teen-fiction Little Brother—a fascinating and kinda brilliant novel that explores surveillance and what Deleuze would call a “control society” in a pretty interesting post-Orwellian way (thus the title. . .)[13]—it definitely is in the same near-future speculative space, and shows Doctorow putting his finger on the pulse of America very well in a similar fashion.[14] (I will also most assuredly give Little Brother to my kids [after 1984, of course] when they get to the appropriate age [that is, if they materialize.])  The first third-or-so of Makers is perhaps the most interesting, but archival themes are present throughout.[15]

Separating the novel as I am into thirds (first third, and last two thirds), each presents an archivalism, both in terms of accumulation and destruction.  The first third posits a venture capitalist purchasing and merging EastmanKodak and Duracell—two thoroughly obsolete companies in this digital age (for obvious reasons)—and creating “Kodacell.”  The goal of this action is to radically redefine how entrepreneurial capitalism works.  Basically, Kodacell will leverage its massive assets toward investing in small, collective entrepreneurial endeavors, “synergizing”[16] them w/ other such endeavors in the company, all to promote creativity, emergence, inventiveness, and un-exploited profit-making opportunities.  This model quickly comes to be known as “New Work.”  Its principal figures are two techno-geek-engineers who basically simply use the detritus and waste of late-capital to make new, creative, inventive products (they’re actually pretty cool ideas. . .).  Though there are many ideas to talk about, this first third culminates in the “3D Printer”: basically a “printer” which can print any three dimensional object one would want, and, furthermore, the printer is able to print itself.[17] These are mobilized primarily as a virtually-free machine geared toward homeless, dispossessed, and third-world inhabitants/people as a cheap, limitless supply of object-making (i.e. the logic here is: how do we exploit the untapped market of those w/o any economic resources whatsoever [and, of course, “help” them]. . .).  What should be clear, is this “alternative” to late-capitalism—collective, emergent, networked, fluid, small, etc. etc.—ultimately produces, w/in the space of the narrative, an object-relationship that is archival.  This 3D printer can make anything.  It is literally an object-archive, in which any object capable of being archived can be reproduced.

The second-two-thirds of the novel is devoted to “The Ride”: an emergent, interactive archive which makes use of the logic of 3D printers to create a space which is constantly and archivally redefining itself.  The logic of this ride is that one gets on, goes through this museum-archive, clicking approve or disapprove on any object one sees, and it constantly re-updates itself, using little robots and 3D printers on steroids.  This ride, of course, gets globally networked and set up in multiple localities, and a “narrative” or “story” starts to emerge—some sort of collective experience of history, the past, nostalgia, etc. that people get ridiculously invested in (one kid, named “Death Waits” gets pummeled to the point of traction for this investment).  One can bring any object they want to be included in the ride, and the collective, nigh utopian endeavor of riding the ride creates an archival space that is supposed to represent some sort of collective unconscious of its participants—and it is emotionally, organically (somehow), fulfilling.  And of course Disney gets involved, lawyers, new modes of litigation, copyright infringement, and all sorts of narrative-pushing shit which is ultimately kinda boring.

What Makers makes (sic) so clear, is that any post-capitalist model (utopian or otherwise) will have to necessarily involve an archival creative commons to hope to overcome the abuses of globalism.  Not only is every text archivally at one’s fingertips, but so is any consumer product, any object whatsoever.  Furthermore, humanity’s relationship to objects becomes an archival question; the relationship to Things (in the best/worst Heideggerian sense) is translated into an emergent property of culture expressing itself—the archive accumulates simply b/c it’s there; and all of this is represented as an alternative to capital.  Though the novel is an obvious narrative failure on pretty much every point, it absolutely succeeds in making quite clear that archivalism is both apocalyptic and utopian, destructive and creative.  For instance:

“Welcome to the Cabinet of Wonders.[18] There was a time when America held out the promise of a new way of living and working.  The New Work boom of the teens was a period of unparalleled invention, a Cambrian explosion of creativity not seen since the time of Edison—and unlike Edison, the people who invented the New Work revolution weren’t rip-off artists and frauds.  their marvelous inventions emerged at the rate of five or six per week.  Some danced, some sang, some were help-meets and some were mere jesters.  Today, nearly all of these wonderful things have vanished with the collapse of New Work.  They’ve ended up back in the trash heaps that inspired them.  Here in the Cabinet of Wonders, we are preserving these last remnants of the Golden Age, a single beacon of light in a time of darkness.  As you move through the ridespace, please remain seated.  However, you may pause your vehicle to get a closer look by moving the joystick toward yourself.  Pull the joystick up to cue narration about any object.  Move the joystick to the left, toward the minus-one, if you think an item is ugly, unworthy, or misplaced.  Move the joystick to the right, toward the plus-one, if you think an item is particularly pleasing.  Your feedback will be factored into the continuous rearrangement of the Cabinet, which takes place on a minute-by-minute basis, driven by the robots you may see crawling around the floor of the Cabinet.  The ride lasts between ten minutes and an hour, depending on how often you pause.  Please enjoy yourself, and remember when we were golden.”[19]

“Culture” here become whatever one chooses to bring to the table.  One can look at it, change it, accept it or deny it, interact w/ it, passively observe, actively participate, or choose an endless stance of destruction; even a Bartlebian stance is possible.  The Ride is the archive par excellence.  It mobilizes all the Derridean logic of archives, while maintaining a weird sense of populism and political potential.  It also clearly interacts w/ markets, and is easily absorbed into the totality of late-capital.  If Doctorow has done nothing else w/ Makers, he’s staked out the terms of archival logic as we go forward, and if the economy contains w/in itself the seeds of its own demise, or conversely, its transcendence into some new model, it will be realized, parallactically, w/in the archive (at least w/in the speculative imagination).

FreedomTM on the other hand gives us something slightly different.  The novel, as said above, is a sequel to Daemon, whose premise was that a “genius” game-designer set off a “virus” upon the moment of his death appearing in the obituaries, which basically inscribes the World of Warcraft (hereafter WoW) upon reality.[20] The virus takes a hold of pretty much every major corporation, infects GPS and all the other surveillance capacities of the police-state, is able to affect material reality itself (through controlling pretty-much-everything), and offers, perhaps most significantly, an alternative economy to the quickly declining US model.  In short, it is a weak AI singularity in the sense we have become accustomed to.  Two things about this novel are notable for myself.

First, for anyone who has played, knows about, has heard of, or even seen the appropriate South Park episode, it should be clear that WoW is archivism inscribed upon (a virtual) reality (in the case of the novel, it ain’t virtual).  What I mean by this is that WoW documents, inscribes, catalogues, inventories, and measures everything.  The entire makeup of its World (and I do mean all the Heideggerian implications of this word) is archival.  One’s very Being in this world is archival.  I’m a lvl so and so, class so and so, race so and so; and though this configuration will change its parameters, it will never stop being true.  I’m a series of numbers stored on a database in some distant land (presumably the Pacific Northwest) whose interaction w/ the “World” is dependent upon those numbers changingEvery single interaction I have w/ this world (in the best late-capitalist sense) is a slight adjustment to my archival being w/in the economy of WoW.  In other words, if I want to “do” anything, I must enter the economy—there ain’t no alternative.[21]

Basically, the gist of FreedomTM is that this model is somehow more “democratic” than our current system.[22] For one, it has clear, teleological goals, something wholly lacking from any model of interacting w/ late capital as a plebe does now.[23] One can enter into[24] the WoW economy, and it is one that makes far more sense than our own.  To be able to interact w/ it, one has to do, idk, stuff—not simply trade futures and fictional assets, but create.  Yes, there are plenty of people that are able to exploit this system, but it ain’t posthuman—it’s practically feudal.  You spend enough time: you become “rich.”[25] And what FreedomTM does is present this economy as alternative to our own.

I can’t help but think, considering my own panoptic time[26] in WoW, that the model Suarez outlines in FreedomTM is in fact fairly prescient and promising.  (Furthermore it evokes, perhaps unconsciously, all the “good” things about Economy 2.0 that Stross outlines in Accelerando; actually, not only that, it resembles more concretely a weirdly [T] Rooseveltian populism than anything that has been broached recently, and for that, I commend him.)  That said, however, his fiction depends upon so many cognitive leaps that even the possibility of its utopian realization has to confront the brutality of late-capital and its ability to totalize, reify, and absorb pretty-much-everything.  In short, he makes it quite clear that even the possibility of this type of emergent, post-capital economy will have to confront capital-as-it-is—i.e. in all its brutal logic.

And this bring me to the second reason why this novel is notable.  I might be totally wrong about this, but I think this is the first novel that truly imagines in a “real” way what the destruction of our current archive would look like.  The real danger of our postmodernity is that everything will be “deleted.”  And this is precisely what the villains of FreedomTM try to bring about: Cybergeddon.  Delete the archive.  All of it.  All the money, digital affects, and flows of global capital: gone.  This is our current apocalyptic scenario par excellence.  The novel posits a conspiracy of just this type of endeavor[27]: to leave capital, and perhaps more importantly, information, in the hands of even fewer people than it resides w/ today.  (This is what the internet is for, btw: to continue informatic (and capital) flow after nukes destroy shit.)  The utopian nature of this novel is that WoW can solve this dilemma.  (Btw, it can’t.  You ever talk to the dumbasses which inhabit that world !?  Shit.)

So I feel at this point tired and that I’ve confronted the major issues of these respective Apocalyptexts, so will leave off.  But basically, if these novels do nothing else, they recast the “economic downturn” in far more interesting ways than simple old-style apocalypticism would, and, though these novels aren’t apocalyptic per se,[28] they still are compelling for all sorts of reasons, the least of which are archival.

In other words: delete the archive, make the archive into an economy, a ride, a (self-replicating) machine, or what-have-you, the nuclear logic of archival accumulation or destruction is still the dominant trope of our fictions.  And btw, Obama may have called what is happening in my current reality “Snowmageddon,” but I prefer my roommate’s words: “Snowbliteration.”  Cheers brothers and sisters.

[1] This isn’t quite true in the case of Suarez and the “Cybergeddon” he introduces.  See Daniel Suarez, FreedomTM (New York: Dutton, 2010), 370-2.  More on this later.  (Seriously, btw, that’s twice in a little over a week that I’ve encountered the suffix “-geddon” applied to things that perhaps do not deserve it.  I’m looking at you Obama, and your “snowmageddon.”  If you really want to get a taste of snowmageddon, read Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy.)

[2] “Our coming was expected on earth.  Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim.  That claim cannot be settled cheaply.  Historical materialists are aware of that” (Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt [New York: Schocken Books, 1968], 254).

[3] Whatever the hell that is. . . .

[4] I also can’t help but coin a phrase here.  Perhaps we should call tales of apocalyptically destructive economic disaster: Capitalgeddon?  W/ a British accent: “that is a capital [sic] idea!”  Or perhaps we’d be better off getting rid of geddons altogether.  (Geddongeddon?  Yeesh.)

[5] Recall Benjamin’s famous first thesis: “The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove.  A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table.  A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides.  Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings.  One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device.  The puppet called ‘historical materialism’ is to win all the time.  It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which, today, as we know, is wizened to and has to keep out of sight” (Benjamin, 253).

[6] Suarez is, according to the book-jacket “an independent systems consultant to Fortune 1000 companies.  He has designed and developed enterprise software for the defense, finance, and entertainment industries.”  And of course I would assume Doctorow’s own work in the blogosphere (Boing Boing) is relatively familiar to most.

[7] A particularly arresting passage: “Off the turnpike [between Orlando and Hollywood, Florida], it was even worse.  The shantytowns multiplied and multiplied.  Laundry lines stretched out in the parking lots of former strip malls.  Every traffic light clogged with aggressive techno-tchotchke vendors, the squeegee bums of the twenty-first century, with their pornographic animatronic dollies and infinitely varied robot dogs.  Disney World still sucked in a fair number of tourists (though not nearly so many as in its golden day) [Lewis Mumford anyone?], but they were staying away from Miami in droves.  The snowbirds had died off in a great demographic spasm over the past decade, and their children lacked the financial wherewithal to even think of overwintering in their parents’ now derelict condos.  The area around the dead Wal-Mart was particularly awful.  The shanties here rose three, even four stories into the air, clustered together to make medieval street mazes.  Broward County had long since stopped enforcing the property claims of the bankruptcy courts that managed the real-estate interests of the former owners of the fields and malls that had been turned into the new towns” (Cory Doctorow, Makers [New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2009], 121).

[8] Doctorow imagines that Disney as we know it splits form Disney Theme Parks (“Imagineering”), becoming two separate companies, and allowing the Imagineering arm of it to take on licenses outside of the Disney purview, say, Universal, Fox, etc.

[9] A gray-market genetic treatment one has to go to Russia to receive, which basically wipes away all body fat, but b/c Americans are stupid, they go whole hog for perfect bodies and have to eat 10,000 calories a day, which basically ruins every single system in their bodies in terrible ways.  Yes, ridiculous, but so is this novel. . . (this is not meant in a derogatory fashion).

[10] This novel was published under the penname “Leinad Zeraus” in 2006 by Verdugo Press (basically a vanity press).  Its massive success caused Dutton, an imprint of Penguin, to re-release the novel under Suarez’s actual name in early 2009.  FreedomTM is the sequel to Daemon.

[11] Suarez, 227.

[12] Of course there is much more to talk about w/r/t these novels, but I’ll leave that to someone else.

[13] Thanks need to be given, btw, for much of this post to J. James Bono, as he directed my attention to virtually everything in it.  Seriously, why didn’t I mention this earlier, Jamie is perhaps the most “with-it” person I know when it comes to, idk, pretty much anything (esp. computery stuff).

[14] To paraphrase the Liars (“Grown Men Don’t Fall in the River, Just Like That,” They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top [Mute Records, 2001]).

[15] Its last 2/3 get fairly bogged down in “character development” and far too much interest in theme parks and Disney.

[16] God I hate this word and other variations of it.

[17] Hyperarchivalism if I’ve ever seen it.

[18] I’ve done away w/ paragraph breaks in this quotation for formatting and readability reasons.  If this offends anyone, get in touch.

[19] Doctorow, 124.

[20] Btw, for those who’re interested, I’m “Slothrop” (yes this is a Gravity’s Rainbow reference) or “Wyattgwyon” (a Gaddis [The Recognitions] reference) in “Galakrond.”

[21] Well, of course there is—i.e. I can just run around talking to people, but this action doesn’t preclude that whomever I’m talking to immediately “judges” me based upon my archival makeup.  The transgressive and alternative possibilities of the game are still w/in the game itself.

[22] And I’m inclined to agree w/ Suarez, for whatever reasons.

[23] This is to ignore the clear goals late-capital has for itself, of course.  See Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (New York: Picador Books, 2007).  This is also to give an imperative to Obama: provide some fucking goals!

[24] As opposed to being perpetually outside of or tangential to it, as we all are now.

[25] Btw, I ain’t in this economy.  I just don’t have the time, inclination, drive, nor OCD necessary to succeed in this economy; and most importantly, I don’t care.

[26] And I do mean this w/ all the appropriate disciplinary connotations.

[27] Against which, of course, our intrepid WoWians are fighting.

[28] Seriously, I think that’s the third time I’ve used this here.  oops.

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